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Fortifier: Sam T. Sicard is one of the people making Fort Smith stronger

Fortifier: Sam T. Sicard is one of the people making Fort Smith stronger

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Cover Story: March 2016

Fortifier: Sam T. Sicard is one of the
people making Fort Smith stronger

Not everyone could accept the circumstances determining so much of their career as well as Sam T. Sicard. The easy-going, 39-year-old is like a lot of people you’ll meet around Fort Smith – a parent with kids in a lot of activities, a willing volunteer at community events and a nice guy you enjoy talking with over a coffee.

From his name alone, Fort Smithians knew he would have the opportunity to work in his family’s business, First National Bank, where he could become the fifth generation of Sicards to head the city’s longest-operating financial institution, founded 144 years ago.

Five years after the death of his respected father, Sam M., “Sam T.’s” steady performance as president and CEO has been as solid as that tall, white-glazed bank building looming over Garrison Avenue since 1910. Sam T. always credits his father’s willingness to share his own wisdom and experience freely with his son for giving him the confidence and skills to lead the business when he was thrust into the role.

This magazine chose to begin a series about difference-makers with Sicard for several reasons, one of which is that this bank’s president has always been an influential figure.

Sicard, however, not only joined many uplifting local efforts, as did his dad, he has initiated notable drives such as Step Up, Speak Out: Together We Can End Child Abuse, in 2012.

That non-profit organization has grown outward from Fort Smith to the surrounding counties served by the bank, doing outreach and education at ground level in schools and a myriad of related service agencies and groups. The non-profit has helped make connections between all concerned people to help adults recognize and act decisively to stop the abuse of children.

More recently, Sicard increased his family’s and the bank’s ongoing support of the U.S. Marshal’s Museum with the completion of a $2 million gift toward its construction. The gift was put together as a $1 million First Bank Corp. pledge to match $1 million more in donations made in Sam M. Sicard’s honor by family, friends and associates.

Leveraging opportunities to a better outcome is Sicard’s strength and a strategy he advocates for the entire city. To reach a goal, he said, the first step is to be frank in sizing up its challenge.

“We have to keep things in context ... let’s go backwards just a little bit. You have to recognize what we faced as a community and what we have overcome: a combination of losing our largest employer in the longest recession in almost a century,”?he said. “We have rebounded from that. We’re not quite to where we were in total jobs but again, if you had told me where we are today vs. losing our largest employer and what our national economy has been through, I wouldn’t have believed it,”?he explained.

Identifying opportunity
Sicard sees the positive in factors that others view as discouraging, such as comparing this area’s prospects to the Bentonville/Springdale/Fayetteville region, where the world’s dominant retailer is headquartered. That’s not just another part of the state with energetic growth, it is an anomaly within the whole nation, he said. It is rare good fortune for northwest Arkansas that Walmart was founded there and remains there, plus it is an opportunity, when viewed as he does.

“The way to look at it, in my opinion, is that is another asset – in our state. The proximity of it is an asset to Fort Smith,” Sicard thinks. “There’s been job creation, I believe, in the local community due to the ability to expand people’s businesses into that market. FNB is there, as well, and it has supported more local jobs in our business. We have to have more infrastructure of support in the back office here to support operations up there.”

More than one way to navigate a trail “Before, if someone wanted to get away to a more urban environment with other attractions, they’d have to drive at least to Tulsa,” he said of the growth to the north. “So there’s positives. The other way to look at it, too, is competition makes you better. When we see progress in other communities, it inspires us to think bigger, think outside the box. It raises the bar. An example of that is the trails.”  

In 2015, Sicard joined with an group that proposed the city divert funds collected by a street tax to construct multi-use trails, a potential recreational feature that is wanted and valued by active residents and residential developers, who ask for these pathways to enhance neighborhoods they build.

“What inspired me to get involved in the trails is that I spent some time on the Razorback Greenway. It made me think how something similar could be done in the Fort Smith community,” he said. “I’m not sure I would be as passionate about it if I hadn’t seen it. I’m not an avid bike rider, actually, but I have a friend who’s really into it and together we made a full day of it. We rode the whole thing and stopped and ate and drank and had a great time with a group of friends, and I thought this would be something very cool for our community. I’m not sure I would be as inspired about our trail system if I hadn’t done that,” he explained in reference to the nearby northwest Arkansas trail system.

Although the Fort Smith Trails & Greenways effort was voted down in a 2015 election, Sicard again saw a way to leverage opportunity.

“We took the election not as an objection to trails, but a response that was against reducing funding for our streets. We understand that,” he said. “We were planning for other alternatives to get it done. We offered to match park department support with private support.”

Digging in for that extra effort after the election results, Sicard joined with Bill Hanna and other business people to suggest alternatively that the city raise its commitment (from existing funds) to prioritize trails. First National Bank offered a zero percent interest loan and the private sector group pledged to raise $3 million more from donations. The plan was greenlighted.

“We’re not done with that. We still have more money to raise but we will get there,” Sicard said of the ongoing campaign. “There are other funding initiatives – all the money from the Fort Smith Marathon goes to the trails.”

Building on momentum
“I think that we need to remember 2015 as a monumental year of change for our community. It started with our first-ever Fort Smith Marathon, then it was the Steel Horse Rally, then the Peacemaker Music Festival – and all these things are being perpetuated,” Sicard observed.

“Then, of course, there was the success of the Unexpected Festival.” The new charter school now forming will be another asset, he added.

“Fort Smith is now on the radar for being a change agent, a community that is passionate about progress. I really do believe that people want to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves. They just have to find how to do it. People come to me and ask, ‘How do you accomplish new initiatives?’ It’s all about finding like-minded people with different skill sets that have that same passion you have to be a part of something bigger than yourself and to give back. When you concrete those relationships, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.”

Recognize we’re all in this together
Sicard is both an idealist and a smart, practical banker when he talks about engaging with his hometown. It is something he strongly believes, as did his father and his more distant ancestors, must be embraced throughout the bank’s team of associates. First National Bank actively seeks the kind of people who participate fully in service to the community. In every branch of the bank, team members are encouraged and given time to volunteer. FNB’s longtime Partners in Education relationship with Fort Smith Public Schools is just one example of many such partnerships that go on year after year.

“We are a community bank. We believe sincerely that our success is only a result of the success of the community. When the community prospers and has economic growth, we are direct benefactors. We view it as a partnership,”?Sicard said. “I feel obligated to support many of these causes. I consider it an obligation of any business that benefits as a result of those events and activities that help us increase commerce, recruit talent, retain talent, retain families and young people. So, that’s what drives the bank. But that’s what also drives me. Who wants to go through life and not make a difference?”

Next month, Entertainment Fort Smith continues the Fortifiers series. Each subject interviewed will be asked to suggest other people whom they identify as catalysts for progress. Sicard suggested a list, including some of the men and women we’re very interested in interviewing. Readers are invited to email their own candidates for this series about people making good things happen to lynnwasson@efortsmith.com.

This article appears in the March 2016 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.

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